Want to Maintain Your Brain?

Recently I had dinner at a friend’s house. The guests included a couple I had never met, Jim and Mary. Someone mentioned that I write about fitness and healthy eating and that led to a discussion of Alzheimer’s, likely our most-dreaded disease.

Mary said, “Both of my parents had Alzheimer’s, so my odds of getting it are high. I’m dealing with it by playing lots of bridge.” She sounded confident that playing bridge would make a difference. Without thinking I said, “That will help your bridge game but it won’t do anything to reduce your chances of getting Alzheimer’s.” I’m not sure she wanted to hear that from a person she’d just met.

Unfortunately, there’s been no research supporting the view that activities like bridge, Sudoku, computer games and crossword puzzles reduce the chances of getting Alzheimer’s. They lead to stronger mental skills in a specific activity but that doesn’t lead to a broader increase in mental skills.

The activity that’s been judged the best for retaining brain health is exercise. Most of the research has centered on aerobic exercise but strength training has also been found to be beneficial. Dr. Ronald Petersen, Director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota said, “Regular exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer’s today, better than medications, better than intellectual activity, better than supplements and diet.”

Research on 162 healthy pairs of identical twins, age 43 to 73, was done to measure their memory and other brain functions as well as leg strength. They were tested at the onset of the research and again ten years later. They controlled for factors such as high blood sugar and high blood pressure that are known to damage brains. Leg strength was selected because it correlates well with how much a person exercises. Identical twins are ideal because they have the same genes.

The results after ten years showed that the twin with the most powerful legs was smarter and that the difference had increased. MRIs showed that the smarter twin had a larger brain and that the difference had increased over the ten years.

A simple way to look at this is that exercise increases the flow of blood through the body, including the brain. The greater blood flow leads to a greater supply of nutrients to the brain, increasing the growth of new neurons or cells.

The greater the intensity of the exercise, the greater the improvement in brain health. Instead of just going on a walk that might be called a stroll, spend part of the walk moving at a speed where it’s difficult to carry on a conversation. You can almost feel that extra blood flowing to your brain. Almost.

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6 Responses to Want to Maintain Your Brain?

  1. Basia Randolph says:

    Interesting article because did not know there is no corroborating science yet on brain improvement with bridge, Sudoku, or computer games. Recently i took up violin lessons because all my aging neighbors started other instrumental lessons hoping to stave off some of those brain changes. Exercise I guess is still the key. My uncle in Poland is 98 and he was a physical education instructor in schools and when he retired a dance instructor. His mind is crystal clear.

  2. Sandy Hackney says:

    Exercise, especially vigorous exercise, IS the Fountain of Youth! Do it often and never stop. My 80+ year old father-in-law gained significant – and unexpected – strength by building a rock wall over several weeks. He lifted and carried rocks throughout the day – weight training! It worked. He was smart until the end.

  3. Joanne Baker says:

    Keep on moving…that’s what I say…I’d rather be fatigued with sore muscles from exertion than depressed with no muscles from lack of activity.

  4. Neale Sweet says:

    Regular vigorous exercise also releases feel-good endorphins that help to stave depression, adding a further benefit.

  5. Vicki Burton says:

    If the results of this research study hold true, it’ll reinforce my belief in the value of regular vigorous exercise. I’ll continue to ‘push that rock up the hill’. If nothing else, I’ll feel better mentally, & hopefully look better than I would behaving like a couch potato.

  6. Allen Bornstein says:

    Very good article. Exercise , diet and positive thinking are the keys to keeping the mind and body in a healthy productive quality of life. “If you do not take care of your body where will you live” author unknown.

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